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Windows 7 rollouts without the pain

Prowess, Symantec, Acronis offer strong alternatives to Microsoft's Deployment Toolkit

By Mike Heck, Network World
August 15, 2011 06:07 AM ET

Network World - Migrating to the next version of Windows can be a painful exercise for enterprise IT departments. That said, with support for Windows XP ending and with hardware refresh cycles kicking in, the move to Win 7 is unavoidable for most enterprises.

The good news is that there are specific tools built to help with Windows 7 deployments. We tested Acronis Snap Deploy 3 With Universal Deploy 3, Microsoft Deployment Toolkit 2010, Prowess SmartDeploy Enterprise, and Symantec Ghost Solution Suite 2.5.

There are two basic approaches to a Windows OS upgrade. Disk imaging has been around since before Windows XP and works well if all your target computers are the same. For example, you've standardized on Dell Latitude E6420s with the NVIDIA 4200M graphics option. This technique, used by Symantec and Acronis, makes a sector-by-sector copy of the reference machine's hard disk structure at a point in time. This also means it's difficult to service the image later when you need to apply, say, security patches.

File-based solutions, using the Windows Imaging (WIM) file format that Microsoft introduced with Vista, are more flexible, because there are standard tools to format and service the disk image. Microsoft and Prowess take advantage of this format (as does Symantec in the latest release, which we tested).

Windows 7 migration: Tips and tricks

But the biggest difference between products is with driver management. At minimum, your resulting deployment media will typically contain enough drivers to boot the target computer. However, this shortcut requires post-deployment work to install hardware-specific drivers.

And when products allow extra drivers to be included - as do Acronis, Microsoft, and Symantec - this increases deployment time and the size of your media. One alternate is to inject specific drivers when a machine is provisioned. Microsoft and Prowess provide this option as standard, giving you the advantage of precise control and faster deployments.

We created a single image for testing that contained Microsoft Windows 7 Professional and Office 2010 Plus, along with Adobe Reader X and its latest updates. We built the reference computer in VMware Workstation 7.1 and then deployed it to Lenovo T400 and Dell Latitude E6510 laptops, and a desktop Lenovo M58p. As we followed the same script for all products, we noted the time to capture the machine, manage drivers, create media and deploy. Our evaluation also considered image file size along with a product's flexibility and usability, which was reflected in the time to perform the benchmark tasks.

Acronis Snap Deploy 3 with Universal Deploy 3

Acronis is well known for its business (and personal) backup products. Snap Deploy takes the firm's underlying imaging capability and surrounds it with a Central Management Console to help IT staff deploy new PCs and workstations.

In essence, the process involves making a copy of the reference hard disk (including the OS, applications, drivers, and settings) and is good for "bare metal" installations of new systems.

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